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Death of Private Danny Chen: Military Admits Chen was Target of Race-Based Hazing on Daily Basis

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U.S. Army investigators have released explosive new details about the death of Private Danny Chen, who allegedly took his own life just weeks after he was deployed to Afghanistan last October. The family of the 19-year-old Chinese-American soldier says the Army told them Chen had been abused by comrades on an almost daily basis, including racist hazing, with soldiers throwing rocks at him, calling him ethnic slurs and forcing him to do push-ups or hang upside down with his mouth full of water. “This is not a situation where you can expect Danny to make complaints to his higher-ups, when they’re the ones that are causing this hazing,” says Liz OuYang of the civil rights group OCA-New York. “It was incumbent upon the officer, the highest leader in this platoon, to take action… Had he reported it to higher-ups, there is a great possibility that Danny may still be alive today.” Chen’s family and supporters have called for eight soldiers charged in his death to be tried in the United States instead of overseas. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to new developments in the death of an Army private who allegedly took his own life just weeks after he was deployed to Afghanistan last October. The family of the 19-year-old Chinese-American soldier, Danny Chen, says it’s received “very sensitive” new information on the investigation from the Army.

Chen’s parents and other members of Manhattan’s Chinese community held a news conference last Thursday to disclose what they had learned from Army investigators at a meeting the day before. They said Danny Chen had been mistreated by comrades on an almost daily basis. He was allegedly forced to perform excessive sit-ups, push-ups, runs and sprints carrying sandbags, among other things. Chen was also allegedly subjected to race-based hazing, with soldiers forcing him out of bed, throwing rocks at him, calling him ethnic slurs, forcing him to do push-ups or hang upside down with his mouth full of water. Army Investigators reportedly told the family that Chen was forced to wear a construction hat and give instructions in Chinese, even though none of the other soldiers spoke Chinese.

Eight soldiers are facing charges ranging from dereliction of duty to involuntary manslaughter in connection with Danny Chen’s death. The charges come after Chen’s family and supporters demanded a thorough investigation. They made this video asking, “What happened to Danny?”

DANNY’S CLASSMATE: A week before Danny died, he was laughing with us on Facebook.

DANNY’S AUNT: He couldn’t wait to come home for dim sum.

DANNY’S UNCLE: The Army told us Danny was beaten by his superiors.

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Our soldiers deserve respect for serving our country.

DANNY’S FATHER: My son wanted to be a policeman.

DANNY’S UNCLE: What happened to Danny?

DANNY’S FRIEND 1: What happened to Danny?

DANNY’S FRIEND 2: What happened to Danny?

DANNY’S FRIEND 3: What happened to Danny?

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: What happened to Danny?

OCA-NY: What happened to Danny?

AMY GOODMAN: The video put together by Danny Chen’s family.

The military said the eight soldiers charged in Danny’s death are still in Afghanistan but have been relieved of their duties and confined to a different base. The next step is a hearing to determine if there’s enough evidence for a court-martial. The proceedings are expected to be held in Afghanistan. However, Chen’s family and the community members are calling for the hearings to be held in the United States to ensure a fair and transparent trial.

Earlier this year, another Chinese-American soldier, Harry Lew, a marine from California, apparently killed himself in April in Afghanistan. Investigators found Lew was also subjected to a brutal hazing by his fellow marines, who were ordered court-martialed in October.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Liz OuYang with the civil rights group OCA-New York. She worked closely with Danny Chen’s family to meet the Army investigators and get more details about how and why Danny died.

Liz OuYang, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain—when did this meeting take place between the family and the military?


AMY GOODMAN: And what did the military tell you?

ELIZABETH OUYANG: They gave us a more thorough accounting of what happened to Danny and the extent of the hazing. Up until that time, the family had been given bits and drabs of what had taken place, but we had no idea of the extent of it or the duration of it. But clearly, they stated that within a few days, that after he arrived, he had been subjected to mistreatment. And this was for a period consistently then for six weeks until his death.

AMY GOODMAN: Lay out the details that the military laid out to you.

ELIZABETH OUYANG: Basically, they said that he was subjected to excessive push-ups, sit-ups, flutter kicks, running sprints carrying sandbags. He was made to crawl with all his equipment across gravel. He was placed in a simulated sitting position while soldiers used their knees to kick his legs. Rocks were thrown at him to simulate artillery coming at him. He was subject to racial slurs, like “chink,” “gook,” “dragon lady.” He was made to perform excessive detail, work details, and guard duty. He had to perform push-ups with mouthfuls of water that he couldn’t spit out or swallow. And then, within two to three weeks of his death, he was ordered to put on a green construction hard hat and given—and to give directions to soldiers on how to put up the tent in Chinese. Danny was the only Chinese American in this platoon. Nobody spoke Chinese other than Danny.

And a week prior to his death, on September 27th, one sergeant dragged Danny from his bed across about 50 meters of gravel and told that he broke the hot water pump. He had bruises and cuts on the back—on his neck and back. And then, on the day of his death, October 3rd, he was scheduled for guard duty, and he had forgot his helmet and needed additional water. They made him go back and get it. And then they made him crawl over about a hundred meters of gravel while other suspects threw rocks at him. And then, shortly, that morning at 11:13 a.m., a shot was heard in the guard tower, and Danny was found lying flat with his rifle next to him, according to investigators.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was doing all this to him? How high up in the command did this go? Did the orders come down to force him to do these things? And how high up in the command did they know what was happening to Danny Chen?

ELIZABETH OUYANG: Danny was a private in the Army. And those that have been charged include an officer who has been charged with dereliction of duty. He was, according to investigators, at least aware of one of these incidents and did not report it. From staff sergeants to other sergeants, all superior to Danny.

AMY GOODMAN: So, for example, the September 27th incident, when the superior officer dragged Private Danny Chen out of bed, along the ground, along the gravel, leaving visible bruises and cuts, this was reported to Private Chen’s platoon sergeant and squad leader?

ELIZABETH OUYANG: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: But they didn’t report it higher up?

ELIZABETH OUYANG: According to investigators, they were aware of that incident, and they failed to report it higher up. And the community is outraged. This is an incident, the type of hazing here—this is not a situation where you can expect Danny to make complaints to his higher-ups, when they’re the ones that are causing this hazing. So it was incumbent upon the officer, the highest leader in this platoon, to take action. And the fact that he knew at least about one of these instances and failed to report it is simply unacceptable. It’s outrageous. And had he reported it to higher-ups, there is a great possibility that Danny may still be alive today.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of military cooperation here in doing this investigation?

ELIZABETH OUYANG: After—as you saw the video that the community, with the family, made, 10,000 people have viewed this video. Five thousand people have signed an online petition demanding a thorough and fair investigation. A march, sponsored by over 35 organizations, from the Army recruitment center to Columbus Park in Chinatown, bringing out 500 people. A contingency of New York-based Asian-American groups and Washington, D.C. groups met with top leaders at the Pentagon. All this advocacy, on top of the media’s unrelenting, dogged persistence in finding out the truth about this incident, has opened the doors for communication with the Army. They have been meeting with the family.

We hope they will be receptive to our requests for reforms. We left the Pentagon meeting with three specific suggestions. And the Army has requested until January 13th to respond to them. One is, we want stronger regulations, making it very clear that the commanding officer will be subject to some form of discipline if this type of hazing occurs under his or her watch. Second—

AMY GOODMAN: Is the commanding officer in this case charged along with the other soldiers?

ELIZABETH OUYANG: No, he, as according to the investigators, as our understanding, has been removed from that base, but he has not been charged.

We are looking for stronger guidelines in their regulations, making it very clear that they will be subject to stronger forms of discipline if this incident happens under their watch. Everyone, former—several, we have spoken with several former military, enlisted and officers who have told us, if the Army is serious about trying to stop hazing in the Army, which is a culture in the Army, then there must be discipline of the commanding officer.

The second thing is that the training clearly is not working. Danny was subjected to taunting, racial taunting in the base here in the United States, in Georgia, as well as in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Which base was he at in Georgia?

ELIZABETH OUYANG: I don’t remember the name of the base. But we have his letters and his diary, and he was subjected to repeated racial taunting in the Georgia base, and then again, as we said, in Afghanistan. So the diversity training that the Army offers, we feel very strongly, is not working. And we want community input into their training.

The third thing that we want is greater intervention at the recruitment stage. There is one of the suspects who is alleged to have been charged with rape prior to enlistment in the Army. And we want greater interventions at the recruitment stage to try better to weed out people who have racist attitudes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Elizabeth OuYang, president of OCA-New York, a civil rights organization here in New York City working with Danny Chen’s family. I believe he was at Fort Benning in Georgia. What about the eight men who are now facing court-martial? What about the charges they face and where they’ll be charged—where they’ll be tried?

ELIZABETH OUYANG: First of all, we’re OCA-New York, the New York chapter of OCA, which is a national group and which has 80 affiliates across the country.

With respect to the eight that are charged, initially, in order for there to be a court-martial, there has to be what’s called a 32 hearing to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to go to a court-martial. At the meeting last Wednesday, we were told that the court-martial—the 32 hearings were going to be scheduled as early as last Friday and this week. But the eight suspects’ attorneys have asked for a delay.

We appreciate the Army taking this case seriously, but we feel strongly that these hearings and trials need to take place in the United States and not in Afghanistan, because of the suspicious nature of Danny’s death and the Army’s history of covering up deaths, non-combat-related. In order for there really to be transparency, these trials have to be in the United States, where the community and, most importantly, the family can have access to these proceedings.

AMY GOODMAN: And the death of Danny Chen itself, in the guard tower, found with a gun next to him, do you believe it was a suicide?

ELIZABETH OUYANG: OCA-New York has requested—the family has authorized a copy of the autopsy report to—for OCA-New York to review. To this date, we have not been given the autopsy report. The Army claims that they don’t want anything to jeopardize the prosecution of these eight, but they are willing to give it to us afterwards. We see no reason why the autopsy report can’t be released earlier. We want a final report of the investigations, the physical evidence. Danny kept a journal in Afghanistan. Despite repeated requests by the family for a copy of that journal, it has not been returned to the family. As of Wednesday’s meeting, the Army attorney said that they have concluded that that journal is not relevant to the prosecution of these eight. So that journal should be returned to the family immediately. And after we have reviewed all the physical evidence, then we would like to make a determination as to whether or not it was suicide or not. We are lucky to have secured the help of Dr. Henry Lee, the renowned national and international forensic expert, you know, who was involved in O.J. Simpson’s case and many others, the Bosnian massacres and so forth, who has—is willing to help us review that evidence.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Liz OuYang, for joining us, president of OCA-New York, a civil rights organization, a pan-Asian organization, stands for Organization of Chinese Americans, talking about the case of Danny Chen, which we will follow, found dead in a guard house in Afghanistan on October 3rd. The military says it was a self-inflicted gun wound. Eight soldiers now face court-martial for his death. Will they be tried in Afghanistan? Will they be tried here? We will see.

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